May 26, 2015 by J. Truett Glen
I already had a strong suspicion of what I was going to hear out of David Gushee’s mouth at the Q Conference in Boston this past April. I had been following David’s line of thinking ever since he ‘came out’ as a supporter of gay marriage. Actually, I was following him long before that. I had interacted with his writings as a part of my master’s degree in Christian Ethics. Being a strict pacifist for 7 years, I was especially grateful for his Kingdom Ethics and for the book Toward a Just and Caring Society, which he edited. You could sense in his earlier writings that he could be emotionally driven in his thinking on ethical issues. Maybe that’s why I resonated with some of his writings on abortion and peacemaking, because he was so passionate. I don’t mean to suggest that his passion made him less of a scholar, but there certainly seems to be a link between his sympathy for people and his broadening social liberalism.
Although I’ve never heard or read Gushee specifically reference an affinity for Hegel or Schleiermacher, it seems that he is holding to some form of theology that adheres to the thoughts of these men. Gushee’s Q-Boston remarks concerning his own move to a more socially progressive community in Atlanta can give us hints as to the ideological drivers that helped him shift stances on homosexuality. He spoke of a church community that challenged his thinking, and of a growing friendship with a community of confessing Christians who embraced the gay lifestyle. He also spoke of his lesbian sister, and the power this relationship had in changing his opinion. To those who have studied continental philosophy, Gushee’s argument concerning the power of relationships in changing his perspective on homosexuality sounds much like Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling community.’ Philip Merklinger writes in his Philosophy, Theology, and Hegel’s Berlin Philosophy of Religion, 1821-1827:
In keeping with this ‘binding’ effect supplied by religious piety to consciousness, Schleiermacher determined that ethics and morality are only abstractions of action and knowledge that arise within human life. By abstraction, Schleiermacher means the type of analytic thought that arises in reflection, thought that makes distinctions and divisions on what is experienced originally as a living unity… So, if one focuses on what is living and experiential in religion, Schleiermacher maintained, then one has to recognize that ‘religion is essentially contemplative’; contemplative of the piety that swells within and seizes human awareness in such a way that ‘the contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal.’ (Pg. 51)
What Merklinger is pointing out is that Schleiermacher believed that ethics flows out of an impassioned community of Christians as they engage real life. This doesn’t sound so unorthodox if one interprets this impassioned community as being beholden to the word of God. But Schleiermacher meant more than this and I have a suspicion that Gushee does as well. It’s not like Gushee had just stumbled on the passages that related to sexual morality and homosexuality. Being much more than an ethicist, Gushee comes across in his writing as well versed in the scriptures. The Decalogue, the Torah, and Romans chapter 1 were not unfamiliar territories to Gushee. It’s hard to believe that such a compassionate and well-read Christian scholar would suddenly discover well into his career as a Christian guide that he was wrong on such a clearly addressed issue as Biblical sexual morality. But that is exactly what Gushee claimed. He confessed to have been blind all these years. So, who taught Gushee this new lesson in how to define sexual morality? Who taught him a new definition of love? Based on his testimony, God taught him through this new liberal community, and his confessing lesbian sister. As he observed real life homosexuals conducting their lives in ways that seemed redemptive and loving, it occurred to him that maybe he was wrong. The feeling community was at work in the mind of David Gushee. The feeling community was framing ethical standards based on their collective contemporary conscience, rather than on the Eternal Word made Flesh.
I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this was an easy transition for David. I too have had plenty of friends who considered themselves gay, and other friends who consider themselves to have a same sex attraction that they work against through obedience to Christ. I have listened many hours to friends who have struggled with their identity and their faith in relation to homosexual inclinations. I have also had friends who have contemplated suicide because of these struggles. The weight they carry is extremely heavy and the body of Christ has not done everything that it can in good conscience to help them overcome or continually bear their burdens. But Gushee has gone beyond these notions and has relented because of communal and personal feelings brought about through intimate relationships.
It’s not just the feeling community that drives self identified progressive Christians; it is the idea of progress itself. It is at this point that Hegel enters the picture. Stanley Grenz does a wonderful job of summarizing Hegel’s theology and how it influenced generations of liberal theologians to follow. He writes in The Social God and Relational Self about Hegel’s driving philosophy in interpreting the movements of religion:
When viewed in religious terms, Hegel argued, the Absolute Spirit is God, who reveals himself in the process of history and who can be conceived as existing only in the sense of this historical unfolding. For Hegel, then, religion is ultimately thought, in that it focuses on knowledge of God. Because Hegel was concerned with the self-actualization of God in the historical process and especially in the endeavors of the human spirit, the philosophical truth at the center of his thinking was the union of God and humanity. (Pg. 27)
Like Gushee, Hegel did not suggest that all prior forms of religious conviction be tossed out when a new proposition arose, but rather he pointed to a movement in thought and community articulated through the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Grenz states that, “Hegel declared that both thesis and antithesis can be affirmed when understood in the light of a more inclusive proposition—their synthesis—in which both are canceled out, yet preserved.” He goes on, “Hegel theorized that Spirit realizes itself in the world process in accordance with a movement that corresponds to dialectical logic. The movement of Spirit, as well as philosophical reasoning, creates the various stages of its own history as it passes through them.” (pg. 27) Gushee himself admits in his interview with the Public Religion Research Institute to being a student of history and contexts. He implies that an ahistorical perspective on homosexuality is an ignorant one and not the healthiest one for Christians to take in reference to the gay community. Like Hegel, Gushee is suggesting that the Spirit is guiding Christians into a conviction on sexual morality that is more reflective of the heart of God; as if the issue was not already settled and communicated by God within the scriptures! In his book Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donovan calls this sort of thinking “historicism,” and he explains how such a system works:
Classical Christian thought proceeded from a universal order of meaning and value, an order given in creation and fulfilled in the kingdom of God, an order, therefore, which forms a framework for all action and history, to which action is summoned to conform in its making of history. Historicism denies that such a universal order exists. What classical ethics thought of as transhistorical order is, it maintains, itself a historical phenomenon. Action cannot be conformed to transhistorical values, for there are none, but must respond to the immanent dynamisms of that history to which it finds itself contributing. (Pg. 67)
Oliver O’Donovan does a thorough job of outlining the theological framework and heritage whence historicism came, and gives this stanza of a hymn by William Hyde to paint the sort of ethos that drives such people:
Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar—
The will to win it makes us free. (Pg. 61)
Gushee has fallen among those who are writing lyrics to reflect what they desire to be, and singing it to the tune of Christ. Not that we don’t all have ample reason to do so. Is Gushee the only learned man with a gay sibling? Is Gushee the only person that has been intimately confronted by the force of an emotionally driven community, which cries out for acceptance and love?! No, he is not. And many men and women before Gushee have stood on the ground of the Word of God in the midst of those who are tossed about by the waves of the sea, and have maintained their right conviction in the presence of the tempting voice of empathy. Our Lord does not command us to lie in our old filth so as to know our fellow man, but rather to separate ourselves from their actions while engaging them with our salty lives. I pray that David Gushee comes back to the conviction that to love those who are lost is to speak life in the midst of their habits of death.
For Further Reading: